BAGHDAD, Iraq—This week's surge in sectarian violence in Iraq—shootings, mosque burnings and mob attacks—is a chilling indicator of how successful the Sunni Muslim insurgency and foreign terrorists have been in fomenting unrest.
While U.S. combat deaths have declined in recent months—from 70 in November to 42 in January and 38 in February as of Friday—insurgents are still staging hundreds of attacks a week. Last week, they struck 555 times, according to American military officials.
The insurgency appears to be adjusting its tactics as confidence grows that U.S. troops will withdraw. Rather than killing American soldiers, the insurgents and foreign terrorists are more focused on creating civil strife that could destabilize Iraq's political process and possibly lead to outright ethnic and religious war.
Unlike past guerrilla movements, Iraq's fighters make few public statements and give fewer interviews. But by all accounts the Sunni fighters are seeking to throw the nation into turmoil, first to hasten the U.S. military's exit and then to counteract the ascent to power of the majority Shiite Muslim population after decades of oppression by Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
"They've shifted their sight group—their target—to the Iraqi civilians and the Iraqi security force and away from the coalition," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, said Thursday.
The bombing Wednesday in Samarra of the golden dome of one of Shiite Islam's most important sites, presumably by Sunni insurgents, was one of the most striking examples to date, one that's taken Iraq to the brink of civil war.
The insurgents chose to hit a "soft" target that inflamed Shiites and led to a nationwide crisis and collapse of faith in the government's ability to provide security. It's an easy step from there for Iraqis to turn to Sunni or Shiite militias for protection and to further cleanse minorities from one neighborhood to the next, a process that started months ago on a smaller scale.
As Sunni mosques went up in flames this week, Sunni politicians withdrew from negotiations to form a national government and accused the Shiites of sending death squads into their neighborhoods. And Shiite militias took to the streets with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Our tongues are confused about what to say—do we talk about the occupiers? The bad security on the streets?" asked the imam during Friday prayers at the Shiite al-Jabar mosque in northwest Baghdad, reflecting a pervasive sense of confusion and insecurity. "And let us not forget that bloodshed is everywhere."
At Sunni mosques, men promised to take revenge for the more than 120 who were killed—most of them Sunnis—in the bloody days that followed the shrine explosion.
With what appeared to be a small number of bombs at the shrine, the insurgents significantly advanced their agenda far more effectively than they would have if they'd used them to attack another American convoy.
Statistics that the U.S. military released this week suggested that the mosque attack could be part of a trend.
Last week, attacks resulting in civilian casualties were up 34 percent from the week before, and those against Iraqi troops were up 12 percent, according to the American military.
And while the 555 attacks last week were fewer than the numbers from late last year, in the run-up to the constitutional referendum and national elections, they're relatively numerous compared with the amount of attacks during the past 17 months.
The International Crisis Group, a research organization that's dedicated to conflict resolution, reported this month that Iraq's insurgency has found a new confidence "bolstered by ... announcements of (U.S.) troops redeployments, the precipitous decline in domestic support for the war and heightened calls by prominent politicians for a rapid withdrawal."
The report, based on analysis of insurgents' communiques and interviews with intermediaries, continued: "When the U.S. leaves, the insurgents do not doubt that Iraq's security forces and institutions would quickly collapse."
American military officials dispute this, saying the insurgency is divided between Iraqi nationalists and foreign fighters who disagree about bombings targeting civilians. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces—more than 230,000 strong—are becoming an increasingly competent force, they say.
Lynch advised taking a longer view about Iraq: "Counterinsurgency operations average nine years. If you study history, successful counterinsurgency operations took at least nine years. We're three years into this operation."
Iraqi soldiers interviewed last year said they fully expected civil war in Iraq. Many U.S. soldiers have said the same, including some officers in Samarra, where the shrine was attacked.
In Samarra, American troop levels are less than a third of what they were at the end of last year. The city has only 80 to 100 police officers, and the force is suspected of being infiltrated by insurgents. U.S. military officials say the city needs some 400 or 500 police to maintain security there.
A senior military officer with knowledge of Samarra and the surrounding areas told Knight Ridder earlier this month that he worried that the town would be taken over by insurgents and the nation would fall into open civil war when American troops left.
"Handing this over to the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police ... it's basically handing it over to the insurgents. And even if they're good guys they won't be able to withstand insurgent attacks," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "I'd say that right now they're still better off than they were before because they're not oppressed, but when we pull out and the civil war begins, we'll see what kind of oppression they're living under then."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.